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Black or White

January 30, 2015
Black or White

This winter we’re getting not one but two race-tinged movies with Kevin Costner playing “one of the good ones”. First up is Mike Binder’s Black or White, “inspired by” a rich white grandfather trying to keep custody of his mixed granddaughter after his wife dies.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) and his wife had been the guardians of adorable young Eloise (Jillian Estell), since her mother, their daughter, died in childbirth. She’d been seventeen, and seeing Reggie (Andre Holland), then in his early twenties and involved in drugs and who knows what else. She hadn’t gotten the prenatal care she needed, and Reggie didn’t even show up until Eloise was two. Of course, Mike Binder’s script doesn’t bother to dig into what went wrong in the relationship between Elliot and his daughter that she hid out from her parents rather than asking for help.

The likely reasons probably have something to do with alcohol. He definitely has a temper when he does; Eloise notes early on that she doesn’t like him when he’s been drinking. But then Binder goes to great pains to say that maybe he’s not actually an alcoholic — he’s just an angry guy and that comes out more after he’s had a few. Binder also bends over backwards to say that it’s not necessarily racist for Elliot to dislike a street hood like Reggie. Elliot grants, he thinks magnanimously, that Reggie is the “black sheep” of his family, with no sense of irony for the phrase. He doesn’t hate Reggie’s blackness; he hates Reggie because he sees a recidivist criminal, and decides to call a sp– well, you know.

The whole movie seems designed to say, “hey, well-off white male baby-boomer, don’t worry: you’re doing just fine, and anyone who tells you different is just trying to tear you down out of spite.” When Reggie’s mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), goes to her high-powered lawyer brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), to push for full custody of Eloise, Jeremiah decides that they should make the case that Elliot is a racist. When Rowena pushes back, Jeremiah insists that, no matter the truth of the Elliot’s feelings, the race card is their winning argument. Claims of racism are, to hear Binder tell it, just a rhetorical smokescreen for greedy black folk to get what they want from well-meaning if somewhat gruff white men.

But even to point out how ridiculous this position is ignores how ill-founded it is. To repeat again for those who haven’t been paying attention: it’s not about whether a given person or action “is racist” or not; it’s about the way systems are structured to preserve and reinforce the benefits one group has received at the expense of another.

Elliot may or may not “be racist”, but he lives in a world suffused with whiteness and privilege every minute of every day of his life. His case for custody of Eloise hinges on his financial well-being, which allows him to send her to a prestigious private school that, not coincidentally, is nearly all white. His law firm is literally composed of good ol’ boys. He even insists that Eloise is not black, grudgingly accepting the “mixed” label. But even if Elliot is really that broad-minded, the rest of the world is not. I guarantee that ten years from now when she’s driving the fancy car daddy’s money bought her, no LAPD officer will see her as anything but black, and how to navigate that sort of space is something all of Elliot’s money can never teach her. And yet the reality of what is best for the child — not to mention mediated compromises like shared custody — is all but ignored in favor of an all-or-nothing battle about who most deserves the cute little black girl as a prize.

Black or White sanctifies the rich white man who believes himself good because he “doesn’t see race”. It castigates the greedy moochers who use the legal system to take what they want from their betters instead of waiting their turn to be granted favors out of natural generosity. And it twists this knife with a warm, syrupy-sweet smile. In a way, I’d almost prefer the grating, overbearing smugness of God’s Not Dead to this; obvious tripe is less dangerous than palatable tripe.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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